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2019 VOL.9 Keynote Speaker at WHRCF2019 - Peggy Hicks

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A Commitment to Listen, Act, and Make Impacts on Human Rights Issues: An Interview with Peggy Hicks
November 2, 2019
Interviewed by Nadya Hanaveriesa

There are a lot of ways to make this world a better place. Being aware and concerned about human rights issues is one of them. Whether it is the past, present, or future, human rights will always be a crucial and critical component because it is related to almost every aspect of the world, aspects such as climate change, economic development, and sociocultural issues. Human rights issues can vary from time to time. One could observe that the issue of human rights will grow in line with the changes that occur in society. As a form of action that would help to address the issue, the United Nations (UN) established its Human Rights Division. This Human Rights Division has collaborated with both local and central governments, as well as with non-governmental organizations, to work on human rights issues.

As director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures, and Right to Development Division of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), Peggy Hicks has been working on human rights issues for almost half of her life. Her career in mastering human rights issues brought her to the World Human Rights Cities Forum in Gwangju, which ran from September 30 to October 2. During the forum, the Gwangju News was able to do a quick interview regarding her career and experience in working towards a better future for human rights around the world.

△ Peggy Hicks (sixth from left) along with other human rights experts and guests at the 9th World Human Rights Cities Forum

Gwangju News (GN): Let us begin with a self-introduction. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Peggy Hicks: Sure. I work at the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva. I am in charge of the work that we do on many different human rights issues. These issues include women’s rights, the rule of law, economic and social rights (rights to land and housing), and continuing work on sustainable development goals. 

GN: Basically, you seem to be involved with everything that relates to human rights, correct?

Peggy Hicks: Exactly, and then we have another division that works with specific countries. My work in the topic areas is incorporated into the specific country work. 

GN: Interesting, so how long have you been working in the human rights field?

Peggy Hicks: I have been with the UN for a little less than four years, but I have worked on human rights since I graduated from law school, so at least twenty-five or thirty years now. Before working at the UN in Geneva, I worked for Human Rights Watch, which is a non-governmental organization that works on human rights issues around the world. I worked for them in New York, and before that, I worked for the UN Peacekeeping Missions in Kosovo and Bosnia. 

△ Peggy (right) during Plenary Session 1 on September 30, 2019, 

alongside Gwangju Mayor Lee Yong-sup (center) and Fadhel Moussa (left), Mayor of Ariana, Tunisia

GN: So, are you originally from Europe? 

Peggy Hicks: No, I am from the United States. I grew up in the Midwest and have worked primarily in New York since then.

GN: Why did you choose to work with human rights issues specifically?

Peggy Hicks: I chose a career in human rights because I grew up in a family where it was important that we looked at how we could make the world a better place and how we could help our fellow human beings. My parents were both social workers. My father worked with children’s rights, so I was aware of these issues from a young age. In looking for a job, my main criterion has always been trying to find the place where I think I can make a difference and where I can help people. I chose to work with the UN because I think it is one of those places. It can be a very hard place to work sometimes, as it is a big bureaucracy. For the UN to work, we need all the member states to be engaged, and my office is only a small part of the big UN system, so we often do not have the money and resources to do everything we want to do. Still, I think that we have a central position that allows us to help a lot of people in a lot of different ways. We work with individuals, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and companies to make sure they are respecting human rights. Some of our most important work, of course, is done with different governments. We are here at the forum today because of the local government but we work with local, regional, and of course with national governments as well. 

△ Peggy Hicks (right) and the interviewer

GN: You said that you have been to Bosnia. What was your favorite experience working there? 

Peggy Hicks: I worked in Bosnia at the end of the Bosnian War, so I was there when the peace agreement was concluded and lived there for another three years following the war. I guess the most significant thing was being there when the war ended because it was the moment when I had worked on all of the human rights abuses that happened during the war. At that time, I saw the potential for peace and for things to get better, but of course they actually did not. A peace agreement was signed, but it did not change things on the ground for people in the fight itself. Many people were imprisoned, many had committed war crimes, and many had lost limbs, families, or jobs. Following the war, there was plenty of human rights work to do, and it was an amazing experience. I learned a huge amount and was able to work with incredible people – both from Bosnia and the international community. One of the most important things I learned was that there is a set of limitations surrounding what you can do as an international peacekeeper. So much of it comes down to how the local people and the government want to move things forward.

GN: What did you do exactly in order to help them? 

Peggy Hicks: That is an interesting story. I got the job originally about three years after the conflict began. The UN at that time did not have the human rights part of its peacekeeping mission, meaning, it did not exist yet. It had what it called “Civil Affairs,” but it did not have human rights specialists. In 1995, the UN decided that it wanted to create a human rights group with three people in it. Luckily, I got a phone call asking if I was interested in working there and wanted to be a human rights specialist with the UN. One of the most interesting things for me was how quickly it moved from that small team to being a part of UN missions everywhere. I started in an office in Bosnia, but I was soon moved to Croatia, which was where the headquarters was while the war was going on. When I moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia, the UN created the office of high representative, which was a whole new national organization for Bosnia. In that organization, I ended up heading the whole human rights component, which was the key part of the mission. I moved very quickly from a small unit to being a big part of the world peacekeeping effort. 

△ Peggy Hicks

GN: It is very interesting how you became one of the key people who started the human rights division at the UN. Is this your first time to the forum in Gwangju? 

Peggy Hicks: It is not only my first time in Gwangju, but it is also my first time in Korea. I feel like I have not traveled nearly enough because I should have come here sooner. I really enjoy being here. 

GN: What do you think of how Gwangju and its citizens has addressed human rights?

Peggy Hicks: I find it really interesting. It makes sense that the reason Gwangju is so committed to human rights is because of its history. Now as it grows, it is not somebody else telling them that now is the time to be interested in human rights. The people here feel a real connection with human rights because of the Gwangju Uprising. It is a part of their history and a part of their lives, and now they are looking at how they can take that experience and use it not just in Gwangju. The great thing about this meeting is learning how the experiences of this city can help inspire and inform how other cities handle human rights. 

△ Peggy Hicks (right) with Gwangju Mayor Lee Young-sup

GN: How do you think the Korean youth should be involved in improving human rights in Gwangju? 

Peggy Hicks: I think one of the most important things for the youth is to make sure that they stay informed and engaged. I think sometimes adults make it hard for the youth to feel like they are being heard, and it can be frustrating because if you do not feel like you are listened to, then it is easy to just sort of give up and step back. I think when you are not listened to, it instead becomes a time for you to step forward. I think we are at a place where the youth have so much at stake, and we see that with the climate movement, where the youth said, “Wait a minute, you won’t be here to see many of the consequences, but we will.” I hope that the youth of Gwangju will be part of not just that movement, but the movement for human rights generally.

GN: Regarding that, what do you think Korean society needs to do to make that happen? 

Peggy Hicks: I was speaking with one of the conference experts earlier, and one of the things she talked about was how we often think about civil and political rights. Of course, the uprising was very much about having a political voice and being able to have a democracy that represents people; however, I think along with sustainable development goals, it should be recognized that political rights and civil rights need to go hand in hand with economic and social rights. In addition, we have to spend the same amount of energy defending people’s right to a job, an education, and to health care. If we do not, and we allow inequality in those systems, then we are creating the conditions that will then lead to denials of civil and political rights. It is so interconnected, and I think that is one of the things we need to learn and appreciate more. 

GN: Last question: What is the best insight you have gotten from working with human rights issues that all of us need to know? 

Peggy Hicks: My most important insight is that you learn more by listening than by talking. Too many conversations start with people having preconceived ideas of who is right and who is wrong. If we are going to be able to build a better world, we have to be able to listen to each other and understand even the perspectives we disagree with. We have to figure out how to do that better going forward. 

Photographs courtesy of
The 9th World Human Rights Cities Forum Secretariat

The Interviewer
Nadya Hanaveriesa is a psychology student from Indonesia who enjoys war history and is currently studying at Chonnam National University. If she could go back in time to experience war, she would want to do it as a war journalist. This article is her first attempt at practicing journalism.

※ This article was originally published in Gwangju News November 2019 issue.
Gwangju News is the first public English monthly magazine in Korea, first published in 2001 by Gwangju International Center. Each monthly issue covers local and regional issues, with a focus on the stories and activities of the international residents and communities.
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